Chobe lions: A Transboundary Conundrum

Post submitted by Lise Hanssen, Project Coordinator of Kwando Carnivore Project.  Photo (above) by Luke Dollar

Corridors, connectivity, dispersal, tolerance, land-use, mosaic, communities – these are the terms that often describe the ability for lions to persist in a landscape shared with people and their livestock. The reality of lion conservation is that the areas in between protected areas are as important as the protected areas themselves.

(Photograph courtesy of Lise Hanssen)
(Photograph courtesy of Lise Hanssen).

The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) is a landscape that is over 500 000 km2 and includes parks, forest reserves, hunting blocks, tourism concessions, and communal grazing lands. This landscape in the heart of southern Africa is shared by five different countries. The goal of KAZA is to use wildlife and tourism as a driver for socio-economic development for the many communities that live in between and around national parks. Tangible benefits to people promote tolerance and conservation works if people’s lives are better. The KAZA TFCA treaty was signed by Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe in 2011 and is considered one of fourteen important lionscapes for the survival of lions.

(Photograph courtesy of Luke Dollar)
(Photograph courtesy of Luke Dollar)

I live and work in the Zambezi Region (ZR) in the extreme north-east of Namibia. Formerly called the Caprivi or the Caprivi Strip, this finger-like projection of Namibia (only 31 km wide in the west) encompasses all the challenges of conserving lions in human-dominated landscapes. Transboundary conservation takes on a whole new meaning in ZR as it lies in the very heart of KAZA surrounded by Zambia and Angola to the north, Zimbabwe to the east and Botswana to the south and shares lions with all of them. ZR is also surrounded by protected areas in those countries so it plays an important role in connectivity for wildlife between them.

If one could zoom in to the ground level, then it becomes clear that political boundaries between countries are the very least of the challenges of conserving shared species. It is no accident the people and wildlife are drawn to the same areas. Two major wildlife dispersal areas fall across east ZR, which is also relatively full of people and their cattle. The successful management of these animals and their habitat lies in the hands of many stakeholders ranging from government agencies to the traditional leaders of the communities that live with wildlife. Conflict between communities and wildlife has a major impact on conservation and yet successful connectivity cannot be achieved without the very communities that live with wildlife.

Hans Fwelimbi with Balyerwa Coservancy game guards discussion livestock predation (photograph courtesy of Lise Hanssen).
Hans Fwelimbi with Balyerwa Coservancy game guards discussion livestock predation (photograph courtesy of Lise Hanssen).

These are the challenges that conservationists face when working in mosaic landscapes. Emotions run high and damages are costly when tolerating species like lions and elephants, and yet without buy in from these communities, the battle to connect habitat is lost. More effort, energy and funding is spent in conflict mitigation within communities than ever before and it was with this background that work in the Zambezi Region kicked off in 2014. The Kwando Carnivore Project, with support from BCI, Panthera and The Millenium Challenge Account, started upgrading cattle bomas to protect livestock from lions. Every year, the number of lion-proof bomas has increased and cattle mortality from lions has declined. This has resulted in lion numbers in ZR parks having stabilized and increased, resulting in the successful dispersal of at least six sub-adult lions through the mosaic landscape into parks in neighbouring countries.

Monitoring living walls (Photograph courtesy of Lise Hanssen).
Monitoring living walls (Photograph courtesy of Lise Hanssen).

The new year has brought a range of new lion challenges in a brand new area with an entirely different slant – the lions that need help are resident in another country. The floodplain of the Chobe river lies in Namibia where people are settled with their cattle that are often left unguarded to graze on the floodplain grasses. On the opposite bank lies the Chobe National Park in Botswana, teaming with lions and other wildlife. Lions from Botswana cross over the river and kill livestock in Namibia resulting in retaliatory killing of lions. Two competing land-uses in two separate countries. In livestock areas in Namibia lions are perceived to be a menace and these same lions are considered a valued tourism asset in Botswana. To benefit lions on one side, the problem needs to be fixed on the other – a true transboundary conundrum.

We plan to expand on our existing efforts and include stretches of the Chobe floodplains that will not only save lions in Chobe National Park, but promote tolerance to a degree that Namibians along the Chobe river might also embrace the presence of lions. This would facilitate the dispersal of lions and result in truly sharing the landscape for OUR lions.

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
While his own research focuses on learning about and protecting the fossa, Madagascar's elusive top predator, Luke Dollar has also devoted himself to promoting smart and effective conservation throughout the world. As a part of this larger dedication, he also heads up National Geographic's Big Cats Initiative. Learn More About Luke Dollar and His Work